Nugget 27: A Winter Visit to the Park, Part I
Let's say you'd like to take a winter trip to Yellowstone. When and how should you go, and what part of the park's many wonders can you enjoy when everything is covered with snow?
First you need to know that the winter season extends from the third Wednesday in December to early in March. If you live far enough away that flying to the park is preferable to driving, consider flying to Gallatin Field at Bozeman, Montana, to enter the park from either the North or the West entrance.
Note that the only plowed road in Yellowstone is the one between the North and Northeast entrances, so your only means of getting around elsewhere in the park will be by snowmobile or snowcoach—or by skis and snowshoes. Renting an all-wheel-drive vehicle is an option, but as an alternative you might consider using the Karst Stage, which will pick you up at the airport and deliver you either to Mammoth or to West Yellowstone. This worked well for me to get to Mammoth in February 2006, when I was enrolled in a Yellowstone Institute course out of Mammoth and was also visiting parts of the park by snowcoach.
Since snowmobile use in Yellowstone became restricted to guided tours of about eight to ten people using the best available technology—four-stroke machines—their use is down appreciably from the peak in the late 1990s. I saw several groups on the roads, but the nightmare of entry station rangers wearing gas masks and snowmobile noise and stench intruding on the enjoyment of the park is apparently over.
This is the latest incarnation of the snowcoach. Known as the Mattracks, it converts to wheels for summer use.
Mammoth Hot Springs
At Mammoth Hot Springs skiing or walking around the terraces is every bit as rewarding in winter as in summer. The most aggressively active hot spring I saw in February was Palette Spring, which is building its terrace so fast and so far since last summer that the boardwalk below it has had to be removed.
Devil's Thumb with terracette detail (above)
|Lower Hymen Terrace and Liberty Cap (right)|
Wolves and Other Wildlife
While at Mammoth I joined a three-day program called "Winter Wolf Discovery," where our driver and instructor was Yellowstone Institute wildlife expert, Brad Bulin. Only on the early morning of the third day were we successful in seeing some wolves, but we saw much other wildlife, including the formerly rare red fox, a pygmy owl, and numerous bison, elk, and coyotes.
Every day naturalist-interpreter Rick McIntyre scans the Northern Range of the park, tracking collared wolves with his radio antenna and helping people spot them.
Brad led us to an elk carcass that had been devoured in the past week or so. We could ponder on how this elk died and how quickly the critters disposed of it. The carcass we saw had died from malnutrition, proven by its bone marrow being extremely thin and runny.
We also visited the former den of famous wolf #9, a female from the first 1995 batch introduced to the park, whose mate was shot near Red Lodge that year. The den we saw was from 1997 and was perhaps three-quarters of a mile from the road. The wolf class gave me a feel for just how the researchers work and think.
Brad (center) tells us about the life and death of wolves and shows us a pelt.
Our wolf class saw fewer wolves than we'd hoped for, partly because mating season was over. Contributing, too, is the fact that the park's wolf population has decreased significantly in the last year or so (down from 174 to 120), due to a large number of pups of the year having died, either from parvovirus or from distemper.A prime wildlife sighting place:
The trip report continues in A winter visit to the park, Part II
To contact Karst Stage, see their website.
Some links to Yellowstone wildlife websites:
Nuggets to explore:
CREDITS: All photos on this page are by Janet Chapple.
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